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Childhood Wellness

Meena Harris on the Importance of Representation in Children’s Literature

Photos: Courtesy of María del Río and Sophie Elgort

The lawyer, children’s book author, and founder of the Phenomenal Women Action Campaign discusses how she’s redefining the word “ambitious” for female empowerment and why it’s never too early to teach children about representation.

Upon the publication of your second book, “Ambitious Girl,” you partnered with We Need Diverse Books to donate copies to students and educators. What is the importance of representation in children’s books?

This is exactly what led me to write children’s books in the first place! I got so fed up with having to switch up pronouns or reach for a brown marker to add diversity to the books I was reading with my kids. But it turns out the problem is a lot worse than I ever would’ve expected: according to one recent study, in 2018 there were as many kids’ books published that had animals as main characters as there were books with Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native human characters combined. That makes no sense at all, especially since we know that animal characters aren’t nearly as effective as diverse — and realistic — human protagonists when it comes to communicating lessons.


So much of what kids learn, especially before preschool, comes from books. That’s why this struck me as both a massive problem and an opportunity — an opportunity to create characters that my own kids, and so many others like them, could relate to.

During time off from school, children lose between 25-30 percent of their school year learning, also known as “the summer slide.” As a mom of two, how do you encourage reading during down times?

To my kids, reading has taken on outsized importance in terms of providing structure, not just during the “summer slide,” but from the very beginning of what you might call this “pandemic slide.”

My partner and I make it a point to read to our girls as often as possible, including in the middle of the workday. I love it when one of my daughters will pull a book off the shelf and ask me to read to her, and I jump at the chance to take a few minutes away from whatever I happen to be doing to read. 

How can parents and teachers make reading fun?

Representation can be a huge part of making reading fun! Kids always want characters they can identify with, so that should always be an option — no matter what you look like.

But also, increased diversity is good for everybody, not just the people actually being represented. White kids should be exposed to stories that center Black and brown voices as well. Boys should read books about girls aiming high, achieving, and succeeding. Diverse representation creates curiosity in others, and it fosters empathy. It celebrates differences and opens up new worlds and experiences beyond the dominant narratives.

Photos: Courtesy of María del Río and Sophie Elgort

From a parent’s perspective, the value is pretty obvious: if you can see it, you can be it, right? For over a year now, my older daughter has been saying she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up. And that’s pretty much only because she read a children’s book about Mae Jemison. Books have this extraordinary power for young kids, this way of really opening up the whole world to them through their pages.

What was your favorite book as a child?

That’s a trickier question than you might expect — for me, and for a whole lot of other women, especially women of color, of my generation. There weren’t a lot of children’s books that centered on Black characters, let alone Black girls, when I was growing up. Whenever they could, my family made a point of finding them and emphasizing powerful images and messages that centered on communities of color and multiculturalism. Specific books that really stuck with me include “Tar Beach”, “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters”, “Whistle for Willie”, and “Shake It to the One That You Love the Best.” Those are wonderful books.

But still, imagine my disappointment when, upon becoming a mom in 2016, I realized that there weren’t all that many to add to that list thirty-some years later. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last five years, and that’s absolutely worth celebrating. However, we still have a long, long way to go when it comes to diversity and representation — and not just in children’s literature, but in kids’ content more generally. 

How can parents start the conversation with their children early about diversity, gender roles, and ambition? What are ways in which you personally do this? 

The fact is that it’s never too early. This stuff creeps into your children’s awareness a lot earlier than we’d like to think. Kids are smart and extremely perceptive, and they’re dealing with all kinds of complex thoughts and feelings all the time. So, I think one of the best things you can do is just be honest with them — with all of the obvious caveats about keeping things as age-appropriate as possible. I firmly believe that being direct with your kids, while validating their insights and feelings, could not be more important. It builds a certain confidence that’s perhaps deeper than simply lifting them up with words. Though of course, like many parents, we try to do that, too.

With respect to “ambition” in particular, I want my daughters — and every other girl in the world — to understand that that word describes something powerful and good. But I also want boys and men to understand how “ambitious” is a word that can positively apply to all of us, and its connotation doesn’t change with gender. If we’re ever going to see change, we need boys and men onboard too. That’s what “Ambitious Girl” is all about: reframing and redefining this word that is too often used against us, when it should be lifting us up.

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